by Len Lear
There have been numerous scientific studies that have demonstrated beyond a doubt that reading to children, no matter how young (even babies), will have a beneficial effect on their cognitive development and school performance in later years. And if they are read to from books by a certain prolific Germantown author, there will also be more Sunshine in their lives.
That’s because Abington Friends School Middle School English teacher for the past six years and award-winning author, Sunshine O’Donnell, has written and illustrated a series of mindfulness books for babies and toddlers for Out Breath Press. The Nesting House stores throughout the region will be exclusively carrying the first book in the series, “Your Vacation on Planet Earth,” a board book for babies and toddlers.
Sunshine, 47 (“Yes; it’s my real name, on my birth certificate. I was born in 1971, and my parents were hippies. They were inspired by the Beatles song, ‘Good Day Sunshine.’”), is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers novelist who has been publishing poetry, nonfiction and fiction for decades. Her novel, “Open Me,” won several awards and has been translated into Dutch and Hebrew. Her nonfiction work was selected for a W .W . Norton Anthology in 2008, which, as any college English Literature major knows, is a major league honor. She has also won other writing awards too numerous to recount here in detail.
A Lower Bucks County native who has lived in Germantown for the past 19 years, O’Donnell previously worked with countless children in poverty-stricken schools, shelters, mental health facilities and residential facilities through The Coffeehouse Project, a mobile literacy classroom she founded in the early 1990s.
She published hundreds of literary magazines written and edited by abused and abandoned youth, mostly teenagers in placement through the DHS system.
“Most of the kids I worked with were deeply well-defended against learning and did not feel safe writing at all, let alone writing about their own experiences and points of view. But once they understood that they really were allowed to write about whatever they wanted, using any language they wanted, they jumped right in, often writing about things they had never disclosed before. Bearing witness to that honesty, vulnerability and courage was a privilege. It inspired me to be a more honest, vulnerable and courageous person myself and to never take anything for granted…
“Many of my students suffered from untreated post-traumatic stress, and they were eager to learn healthy tools for managing the tsunamis of nervous-system alarms they experienced throughout the day. Ages ago, I developed an idea that the kids loved to use when they needed to shift perspective: think about your life here as a temporary vacation on Earth, and experience this moment as if you were a tourist or perhaps a curious alien.
“When you think about your life as a vacation, a time to feel peaceful, non-judgmental and open to new experiences, everyday objects such as broken crack vials on the playground become curious artifacts, and challenging moments become fascinating learning experiences instead of overwhelming catastrophes.
“When my son, Kieran, was born in 2006, I created a series of small mindfulness books for him using the analogies I had developed for my students, but the vacation book was by far his favorite. Other parents asked for computer printed copies for their own babies and toddlers, and now, 12 years later, I still have friends and neighbors requesting these books, particularly “Your Vacation on Planet Earth,” so that they can gift these books to families with newborns. The owners of The Nesting House fell in love with the whole series last year and asked for exclusivity for the first run of all of the books.”
“Vacation on Planet Earth,” published in February of this year, is really for adults to read to the babies and toddlers in their lives, “to welcome them to the planet and help them to enjoy their trip.”
When O’Donnell was growing up, people were constantly asking her (as I did) if Sunshine was her real name! “I was not a big fan of the name Sunshine; it never felt like it fit until I started The Coffeehouse Project. I told the kids they could just call me Sunshine, but they insisted on calling me ‘Miss Sunshine,’ and I wound up loving it. Being Miss Sunshine was such a joy.”
O’Donnell is not the only member of her family who is improving the world. Her husband, Casey O’Donnell, provides housing and treatment for homeless veterans in Philly through Impact Services in Kensington. And their son, Kieran, is “an incredible musician, math whiz and budding social justice warrior who published his first poem in a literary magazine this year.”
“Your Vacation on Planet Earth” can be obtained online at The Nesting House. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org